Following 25 years of service, MAF operations in Bangladesh have ended. Significant infrastructure development including the opening of Padma Bridge, which connects the southwest to the north and east, has revolutionised transport links leading to less reliance on MAF. As MAF winds up its activities, we look back on what the charity has achieved…
Due to massive growth in Bangladesh’s transport links in recent years, which has led to the decline of MAF’s services, MAF Bangladesh officially ceased operating on 1st August.
The six-kilometre, two-story Padma Bridge from Shariatpur to Madaripur over Padma River opened on 25 June this year.
This feat of engineering will significantly reduce overland travel time for trains and road vehicles heading to 21 southern districts, many of which MAF used to serve with its twice weekly ‘Southern Shuttle’, which launched in 2008.
Dave Fyock, MAF International’s CEO reflects on the end of an era:
‘We celebrate with the people of Bangladesh the progress that has been made and are glad for the dramatic difference that this will make to the southern region.
‘MAF values the wise use of resources and seeks to balance the benefits of investment with the costs involved. Following a review of the Bangladesh programme in late 2021, we concluded that, in conjunction with the improved transport infrastructure, there was insufficient demand for MAF in the country.
‘MAF’s priorities are shaped by the greatest impact on isolated communities. Closure of the Bangladesh programme will release resources to invest in new opportunities where we can make a more significant difference. Please uphold the team in prayer, as they work through closure activities.’
Dave Fyock, CEO of MAF International
MAF Bangladesh is born
It was one of the world’s deadliest natural disasters ‘Cyclone Bhola’ which wreaked havoc across East Pakistan and India’s West Bengal in Nov 1970, that first mobilised MAF in the region. (Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan in 1971).
A 34-foot storm surge over the Bay of Bengal devastated the lowlands killing at least half a million people (source: BBC). A small team from MAF Sweden responded to the tragedy.
MAF envisaged how it could operate from both land and water to reach millions of isolated people in minutes rather than days, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that MAF was officially invited by the Bangladesh Flying Academy to assist in operating two amphibious aircraft (floatplanes) for medevacs.
It became clear that a small aircraft charter service could support and develop remote communities, giving thousands of isolated people access to lifesaving help.
With the capital Dhaka as its main base, MAF Bangladesh began to take shape.
Registering as an international NGO in 1995, MAF Bangladesh was finally issued with an Air Transport Operating Licence in 1997 and began operating the only floatplane service in the country.
Saving time saves lives
Bangladesh is home to almost 5,000 miles of rivers, which cover more than a third of the country’s surface area. In the absence of a good national road network, MAF built up invaluable experience flying over and landing on a myriad of waterways.
Journeys that previously took one or two days by land and river, only took MAF around an hour by air. Reaching people in a fraction of the time, transformed and saved lives. Faster access to remote areas saved time, which enabled services to run more efficiently.
From 2003, Friendship’s Floating Hospitals depended on MAF to fly in patients, doctors, surgeons and supplies, which allowed more time to perform operations says Runa Khan – Friendship’s founding director:
‘For every hour saved, a person’s life is saved. If MAF hadn’t been there, two whole days would have been wasted in travel – one whole day going and one whole day coming back. How many operations not carried out in two days? Maybe a third if we hadn’t had the services of MAF. MAF understood.’
Similarly, for Operation Cleft – which carries out life-transforming facial surgery – their work simply would not have been possible without MAF, says company secretary Bruce McEwen:
‘We spent a very busy two weeks attending surgical clinics in seven cities where we performed more than 60 free cleft lip/palate operations.
‘One of the cities was Barguna in the south. There was no way we would have been able to visit this remote area without MAF’s very special floatplane services.
‘Not only was the flight quick and comfortable, but Mark Blomberg made us feel very welcome and safe. Thanks again MAF for looking after us in Bangladesh.’
Over the years, MAF has flown thousands of aid workers, medical professionals and international development specialists to Bangladesh’s most isolated places, enabling practical help to reach the most vulnerable, quickly, reliably and safely.
‘Co-operation in Development’ for example is an organisation which focuses on the prevention of drowning, which is the biggest killer of under-fours in Bangladesh, according to the RNLI.
Too many children are trudging through thigh-high waters during wet season (June to October) just to get to school. Many of them never reach their destination.
The Co-operation builds bridges over waterways and fills in ponds in a bid to make school journeys safer.
Much of this work takes place around Bhola Island – Bangladesh’s largest island located in the south of the country, which can either be reached by a short flight or many hours by river and road. The latter is not really an option says Dr Olav Muurlink – the Co-operation’s country director in Bangladesh:
‘MAF is literally the best way to get to Bhola Island, which has no landing strip, let alone an airport. MAF takes us straight from Dhaka to the river off Bhola and saves our volunteers around 8 or 10 hours each way. Saving just a single day travelling makes a huge difference.’
MAF on the frontline in a disaster
Besides supporting the ongoing development of the country, MAF was quick to respond to several natural disasters – Cyclone Sidr in 2007, Cyclone Aila in 2009 and Cyclone Mahasen in 2013.
Thomas Pope from USAID recalls MAF’s critical support following Cyclone Sidr:
‘A lot of life saving materials were carried by MAF to areas with no communications whatsoever. The roads were all gone and the task was only possible by aircraft.
‘If it wasn’t for MAF, we would have had to get a commercial flight to whatever the closest airport was and then drive hours and hours to get to wherever the place of need was, but the floods would have prevented us. MAF flights obviously saved time and resources.’
Colum Wilson from DFID’s disaster management team echoes Thomas’ sentiment following Cyclone Mahasen:
‘Because of MAF, we were able to access places in greatest need in some of the really difficult corners of Bangladesh. MAF could transport relief workers there very quickly.
‘In the wake of Storm Mahasen, we had no idea what the impact was. We knew it was big, but we had no way of getting a quick overview of what had happened. That’s where MAF came in.
‘We commissioned a MAF flight with some technical experts on board to take a very quick fly over. MAF flights became an integral part of our assessment capability for international humanitarian relief in Bangladesh.’
Investing in Bangladesh’s future
Despite the programme’s closure, MAF has made a conscious commitment to the long-term development of the country.
Over the years, MAF employed and trained many national staff, seeing aircraft maintenance engineers, managers, logistics and administrative professionals flourish with specialist skills.
Raju Mondal (pictured right) – a former anchor boy from a remote Bangladeshi village – used to help MAF anchor the floatplane when it landed on water. Now – thanks to MAF – he is a qualified aircraft mechanic, which will hold him in good stead for the future.